Today we celebrate the 241st anniversary of America’s Declaration of Independence and the passing of the two political intellects most responsible for its drafting.
On July 4, 1826, on the anniversary of America’s independence, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died. There is something remarkable and uncanny, something that enhances the written declaration, that its two most important contributors lived exactly 50 years to the day from the date of its publication. It’s as if they agreed, finally, that the principles embodied in the document were sound and durable enough to survive without their continued vigilance.
What may be equally remarkable is that these two political giants and founding fathers died as close friends after more than a decade of vitriolic hatred for one another. In the presidential election of 1800, Jefferson and his allies defamed Adams and in doing so caused a rift that lasted 11 years.
As John Dickerson pointed out on Sunday’s Face the Nation:
Jefferson and Adams didn’t communicate for 11 years until a mutual friend reminded them of their past, calling them the North and South Poles of the American Revolution. It didn’t take much. “A letter from you calls up recollections very dear to my mind,” wrote Jefferson. “It carries me back to the times when beset with difficulties and dangerous we were fellow laborers in the same cause.” They exchanged 150 letters after that.
What allowed them to knock off the crust of hatred was their love for a shared set of values. The Jefferson and Adams reconciliation matched their hopes for the nation. America would be able to survive the bad spells, partisanship and pride and abuse of power, because its citizens would keep their commitment to freedom, equality and justice and pull the country back on track.
The risky experiment is now 241 years old, only because each generation fault keep faith with the foundation that Jefferson and Adams laid.
I suppose I’m in the minority in that I enjoyed law school more than its practice, and one of the reasons is the respect it gave me for the genius of our founding fathers and the documents they crafted.
Once again, as in the early years of our republic, vitriol and partisan politics are in play. We are living in times that are challenging the genius of our founders. Principles and institutions are being stress tested by a President who is not a student of American history or government. It’s worth remembering that Jefferson and Adams were able to overcome their acrimonious differences and develop an enduring friendship. On this Independence Day I want to celebrate the country we live in and the foundation it is built on. Hopefully we can restore the balance of patriotic civility that Jefferson and Adams modeled.
Happy 4th of July.